Diane Ravitch Launched, Yinzer-Style

On Monday, Yinzers were the first in the country to see Diane Ravitch’s new book, The Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools. Released nationally on Tuesday, the book is already #1 in public policy and has moved up to #104 on the Amazon top-sellers list. Pittsburgh helped to launch a crucial conversation – and what a launch!

An audience of nearly 1,000 people packed into Temple Sinai to hear Dr. Ravitch, an education historian, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education, and widely acclaimed expert on public schools. The event was part-rally and part-lecture, with stand out performances by the Pittsburgh Obama steel drum band, the Pittsburgh Dilworth drummers, and the Pittsburgh Westinghouse Bulldogs high-stepping marching band. And because we are an education justice movement – and movements must make music together – we stood side by side to sing the anthem We Shall Not Be Moved.

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After a welcome from Rabbi Symons, I offered some framing remarks, putting the fight for public education in local context. I talked about what we are seeing here in Southwest PA and the links between the de-funding of our schools, privatization, school closures, increased class sizes, and high-stakes-testing. In her lecture, Dr. Ravitch explained how and why these things are happening all across the country, promoted by a corporate-style-reform movement. One after the next, she held up the promises of the reformers and pronounced them “hoaxes.”

In her talk, and backed up by pages of data in her book, Dr. Ravitch offered abundant evidence that the reformers’ “solutions” for public schools are actually hurting our children. From cyber charter schools, to parent trigger laws, to vouchers, mass school closures, merit-pay, high-stakes-testing, and mis-used teacher evaluation systems, she demonstrated the perverse consequences of these efforts. Most crucially, she explained why we must pay attention to racial segregation and poverty – and how privatization does nothing to solve the larger issues that are truly affecting our students and schools.

Dr. Ravitch offered no silver bullets. But she did offer plenty of evidence-based solutions. She advocates for pre-natal care for all expectant mothers; universal, quality early childhood education; smaller class sizes; a re-thinking of charter school laws so that public schools and charter schools can truly collaborate; wrap-around services such as healthcare and social services in the schools; tests designed by teachers to measure student learning and the elimination of most high-stakes-testing; efforts to strengthen the teaching profession; and the protection of local, democratic control of public schools.

Sound familiar? This is exactly the vision that our community has put forward this year through dozens of town hall meetings, rallies, neighborhood discussions, conversations with legislators, and grassroots actions for our schools. [“A Vision for Great Public Schools”] Never once have we heard someone say we should focus on getting rid of teachers, closing schools, or slashing budgets. On Monday night, I said, “We’re not interested in talking about how to fire teachers – we want more teachers in classrooms with our kids,” and one-thousand people roared together, “Enough is enough!”

In her Reign of Error, Diane Ravitch promotes the kind of school day and rich education that we have in mind for all kids:

If we mean to lift the quality of education, we should insist that all children have a full curriculum, including history, civics, literature, foreign languages, physical education, mathematics, and science. We should make sure that every child has the chance to sing, dance, write, act, play instruments, sculpt, design, and build. Students need a reason to come to school, not as a duty, but for the joy that comes from performance and imagination. [p. 325]

Several student leaders from the Westinghouse Bulldogs high-stepping marching band joined Dr. Ravitch on stage to explain what has happened to arts education, music, and band at their high school. Despite the proud Westinghouse legacy that includes many of this country’s jazz greats (think Billy Strayhorn, Al Aaron, Mary Lou Williams and a host of others), the ragtag band has almost no instruments, hasn’t had new uniforms in more than a dozen years, and can’t even afford to buy drumsticks. Yet the students are passionate about holding their band together. In response to their statement, the Rev. David Thornton issued a full-throttle call-to-action to the audience and our collection raised over $1,600 to support the Bulldogs.

But a collection is not enough. The fact that we shouldn’t have to do this at all, is precisely Diane Ravitch’s point. Our public schools are public goods, and we must treat them that way – not as businesses making widgets. Public education is a community responsibility, but the driving ideals of privatization – competition, choice, measurement, rank sorting, punishment, efficiencies – undermine that shared obligation. Dr. Ravitch explains,

The more that policy makers promote choice – charters and vouchers – the more they sell the public on the idea that their choice of a school is a decision they make as individual consumers, not as citizens. As a citizen, you become invested in the local public school; you support it and take pride in its accomplishments. You see it as a community institution worthy of your support, even if you don’t have children in the school. … You think of public education as an institution that educations citizens, future voters, members of your community. But as school choice becomes the basis for public policy, the school becomes not a community institution but an institution that meets the needs of its customers. [p. 311]

That is why it’s so important that our community is standing up together now for public schools. On Monday, Dr. Ravitch said she believes “the tide is turning” against corporate-style reforms and that parents, in particular, are the “sleeping giant” that will be key to change. Here in Yinzer Nation, that giant is waking up and joining forces with students, teachers, and other community members. Witness the new coalition of community organizations, faith-based groups, and labor that hosted the event. Called Great Public Schools (GPS) Pittsburgh, it consists of: Action United, One Pittsburgh, PA Interfaith Impact Network, Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, SEIU, and Yinzercation.

In addition to these groups, we had so many generous co-sponsors – including an impressive collaboration of seven of our region’s colleges and universities – that we were able to keep the evening completely free and open to the public. The co-sponsors were: Carlow University School of Education, Chatham University Department of Education, Duquesne University School of Education, First Unitarian Church Social Justice Endowment, PA State Education Association, Robert Morris University School of Education & Social Sciences, Slippery Rock University College of Education, Temple Sinai, University of Pittsburgh School of Education, and Westminster College Education Department.

Children participated in activities provided by volunteers from the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University’s HearMe project. Mystery Lovers Bookshop was on hand with special permission from the publisher to sell early copies of the new book. They sold out in a matter of minutes and audience members waited patiently in a long line at the end of the evening to meet Dr. Ravitch and get their books signed.

The crowd of 1,000 included many elected officials and policy makers who will help to shape the future of our schools. They included the Democratic nominee for Mayor of Pittsburgh, Bill Peduto, current and incoming members of Pittsburgh City Council and the school board, superintendent of Pittsburgh Public Schools Dr. Linda Lane, Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate John Hanger, and school board members and superintendents from school districts as far flung as Franklin Regional, Wilmington Area, South Butler County, Carlynton, and Chartiers Valley.

We earned a lot of media attention, too, with stories on KDKA and WESA (the local NPR affiliate). The Post-Gazette and Pittsburgh City Paper both ran feature articles with photographs. [Post-Gazette, 9-17-13; Pittsburgh City Paper, 9-18-13]

In short, this was a fantastic Yinzer-style launch to Diane Ravitch’s national book tour. And she has left Yinzer Nation with all the evidence we need to combat the de-funding and privatization of our schools.

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National Opt Out Day

Today is national Opt Out Day. Today is the day that United Opt Out, a group of grassroots public education advocates from across the country, has called on parents, students, teachers, administrators, school board members, and anyone else who cares about what is happening to our schools to challenge corporate style education “reform” in our own communities. It’s time to think about what opting out means.

For just over a year, this grassroots movement here in Southwest Pennsylvania has been standing up for public education: fighting for adequate resources, equity, and policies that support public schools as a public good. Dr. Mark Naison, professor of African American studies and History at Fordham University and a public education activist, compares what is happening now to the rights movements of the 1960s, which grew in the context of the great Civil Rights Movement. Our current work for public education “began with conversations, most of them private; then meetings; then formation of organizations; then rallies, marches, boycotts, lawsuits and strikes – the same model followed by movements of the Sixties on behalf of women’s and gay rights.” [LA Progressive, 12-3-12]

Our movement is still relatively young, both at the local level with groups such as ours and at the national level with new organizations such as Parents Across America, Save Our Schools, and United Opt Out that have emerged in just the past couple years. But Dr. Naison notes that we have already “robbed [corporate style reform] of its air of romance, exposed its links to big money interests, and challenged its claim to promote the cause of equity and civil rights.” Perhaps most importantly, our movement has “let individual teachers, parents and students who were feeling smothered and abused by the new policies know that they are not alone and that resistance is possible.” Naison identifies four steps in this moral and political awakening: “The first step is telling the truth about what Reform is really doing to our schools; the second step is to share that insight with colleagues, friends and family; the third step is to attend rallies and public meetings which challenge the Reform agenda; and the fourth step is to Opt-Out, Boycott, Strike and Sue.” [LA Progressive, 12-3-12]

According to Dr. Naison, most folks are in stage one or two – talking about what is happening in our schools and sharing that information with our networks. Here in Yinzer Nation, most of us leapt into stage three – attending rallies and publicly challenging threats to our schools such as the massive budget cuts. (If you need a reminder of all the incredible work we accomplished in 2012, please see “Top 10 Success List.”) Now it’s time to move to that fourth step and consider what an Opt Out movement could do here for our schools.

Let me start by sharing the conclusion I’ve come to: this year, my children will not be taking any high-stakes-tests. That means no PSSAs, no Keystone Exams; none of the approximately 23 standardized tests my sixth grader would be subjected to (nine more than last year). These tests are damaging our schools, our teachers, and most significantly, our children’s education. We’ve rallied in snowstorms, met with our legislators, written letters to the editor, held vigils for our furloughed teachers … heck, I’ve been all the way to the White House – twice – talking about what is happening to public education. This is fundamentally a civil rights issue about equal access to a great education for all our children, and now is the time for civil disobedience: my family can no longer participate in a system that is causing great harm to the people and institutions I care about.

Dr. Tim Slekar, who last week helped us understand how high-stakes-tests are being misused to harm our teachers, explains: “all of this testing, test prep homework, data driven instruction and holding teachers accountable has sent an entire generation of students to careers and college less prepared to do real intellectual work and lacking any sense of imagination and curiosity. This system is destroying our children.” He is one of the founding members of United Opt Out, lives here in Pennsylvania, and has opted his own son out of high-stakes-testing. He believes opting out is “the only thing we have that has a chance at stopping this insanity” and that this “decision is pro child, pro teacher and pro public school.” He reminds us that, “Taking care of our children is our first responsibility. … We are talking about stopping the intellectual abuse and demeaning educational experiences our children have had to sit through for 10 years.” [@theChalkFace, 12-21-12]

In the coming days, we will look at the connection between high-stakes-testing and budget cuts. We will examine how these tests have changed school culture and how teachers feel about having to administer them. We will review the plague of cheating scandals that have infested our state, all the way to the PA Secretary of Education himself. And we will recall the misuses of our children’s test data, now being inappropriately and punitively applied to teacher evaluation and school closure.

Today I am saying: this is our data and they cannot have it. I care about learning, not testing. That doesn’t mean I am against all testing – of course our teachers need to assess student learning. But testing is not learning. Enough is enough with the high-stakes-testing. In Pennsylvania it is our right as parents to review copies of these tests that will be administered to our children and then to request a religious exemption (I will explain more about this soon, too). Therefore, I will be calling upon the traditions of social justice, social action, equity, and compassion at the root of all our major religions to quite simply opt my children out of this madness. For them, for their school, their teachers, and for the institution of public education.

Today is national Opt Out Day. What will you do?

 

Help grow our grassroots movement for public education: join other volunteer parents, students, educators, and concerned community members by subscribing to Yinzercation. Enter your email address and hit the “Sign me up” button to get these pieces delivered directly to your inbox and encourage your networks to do the same. Really. Can you get five of your friends to subscribe? Working together we can win this fight for our schools.

Waiver No Favor

So Pennsylvania just joined 44 other states in the country that have already applied for a waiver from No Child Left Behind. It’s about time, you might say. But before you go getting excited that our state has suddenly become pro-public-education, let’s stop and take a look at what this really means. It turns out a waiver is no favor for Pennsylvania.

First, we have to remember what No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is all about. While some educators appreciate the way it renewed focus on the lowest achieving students and the racial achievement gap, the act had many other consequences. NCLB established a system of failure and blame, accusing teachers of poor performance when their students did not do well on the tests, and then labeling schools as failures when their students struggled.

NCLB effectively created “teaching to the test” and “canned curricula” giving teachers less and less control over their classrooms, while students spend more and more time preparing for tests and practicing test-taking skills. Students are certainly learning how to take standardized tests, but not actual content. [For details, see “Testing and More Testing.”] The massive increase in school time spent on test preparation inevitably detracts from time on other learning tasks and the laser focus on reading and math tests has drastically narrowed our school curricula: we’ve lost music, art, library, history, science, languages, and more in the quest for higher standardized test scores in these two single areas. And schools that fail to make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) using these test scores are threatened with punitive sanctions, including loss of funding, transfer to a private charter school operator, or complete closure.

High-stakes-testing has therefore set the stage for a plague of cheating scandals as desperate students, teachers, school districts, and even states try to game the system. (See how this has made Pennsylvania’s own Secretary of Education “A Liar and a Cheat” and how the feds just slapped down his latest scheme in “Talking Turkey About Charters.”) NCLB set the unrealistic target of 100% proficiency for all U.S. students in reading and math by 2014, and as that deadline has approached and the proficiency bar has moved ever higher, more schools have “failed.” What’s more, our kids are expected to score proficient on tests that are normed – which by definition follow a bell curve, with half of the test takers always scoring above the mean, and half scoring below. Education historian Diane Ravitch points out:

“No matter how hard you try, a bell curve is still a bell curve. There is no district in the nation where 100% of the children are proficient. The children who are most advantaged cluster in the top half; those who are least advantaged cluster in the bottom half. This is true of the SAT, the ACT, state tests, federal tests, and international tests. And, if you step back, you must wonder why the standardized tests–whose flaws, inaccuracies, and statistical vagaries are well known–have become the measure of all education. No private school in the nation is subjecting its children to this mad scramble to live up to the demands of Pearson and McGraw Hill’s psychometricians.” [“Waiver Madness,” DianeRavitch.net, 9-28-12]

In Pennsylvania, the number of districts making AYP fell from 94% in 2011 to 61% this year. So you would think applying for a waiver would be a good thing, freeing us from the ridiculous binds of this federal act that expects all our children to be proficient a short 18 months from now, and will ultimately wind up “failing” every single school district in the nation. Ah but wait. In exchange for a waiver from this insanity, states must agree to new mandates that are at least if not more harmful than NCLB itself.

This fall, the state of Vermont actually withdrew its request for an NCLB waiver, stating “it has become clear that the USED [U.S. Department of Education] is interested in simply replacing one punitive, prescriptive model of accountability with another.” Under a waiver, Vermont would still have been required to use a single high-stakes standardized test (like Pennsylvania’s PSSAs or Keystone Exams) and then would also have to use those test results for the bulk of a teacher’s evaluation. The state called these “heavy handed methods,” and had been negotiating for flexibility with USED, but determined, “the term ‘flexibility’ is a misnomer.” [Diane Ravitch.net, 10-19-12]

In naming the entire state to her Honor Roll of public education advocates, Diane Ravitch noted that Vermont’s commissioner told the feds, “We cannot continue to expend energy requesting a detailed accountability system that looks less and less like what we want for Vermont. We do not have confidence that the requirements we are being asked to meet is the formula for success.” What’s more, the state refused to lower its cutoff scores as most other states have done to try to get more of their students over the AYP threshold. As a result, while Vermont’s students score consistently well on national exams (such as the NAEP), more than 70% of its schools are not making AYP. [“An Entire State Joins the Honor Roll,” Diane Ravitch.net, 10-19-12]

While Vermont’s withdrawal of its waiver request reflects a clearly reasoned stand on the harm being done to our schools in the name of NCLB and testing, our state’s long holdout was anything but. Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Ron Tomalis said his “overriding concern” in not applying for the waiver until now, was that the waiver would force the state to change the way it performs standardized testing and that any few federal laws could then render those changes obsolete. Based on his conversations with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Sec. Tomalis now feels there will be no new federal legislation and appears more than willing to go along with making changes to our testing system to please NCLB waiver requirements. [Post-Gazette, 11-28-12]

What’s more, Tomalis had already applied for a two-year freeze on student testing targets, but the USED turned him down. So rather than taking a principled stand like Vermont, Pennsylvania is going along with the vast majority of other states in the country, ready to do what the USED tells them to do. And this is where it gets dangerous.

For instance, in New Jersey, the waiver requirements imposed on that state have created yet a new labeling and blame system: the Garden State will now make a list of 75 “priority” and 183 “focus” schools that will receive mandated interventions, including possible closure or conversion to charter schools. Forty-five parent groups and civil rights groups have petitioned U.S. Secretary Duncan to stop the process, which will affect the poorest schools with the highest percentage of African American and Latino students. The coalition noted that the state has also classified 122 “reward” schools, which will receive financial bonuses, and are located in the wealthiest districts in the state. They concluded, “The blatant economic and racial inequity built into this classification system harks back to the days when such segregation and inequity were policy objectives for our State.” [Save Our Schools NJ, 10-15-12]

And if imposing new, damaging systems on our states was not bad enough, consider the fact that the entire waiver process itself is illegal. U.S. Secretary Arne Duncan is blatantly circumventing federal law in issuing these waivers. As Diane Ravitch points out, “It is not the prerogative of any federal official–not even a cabinet member–to decide to disregard a federal law … If the law stinks, as NCLB does, revise it. That’s the way our legal system works. Once the precedent is set, any future cabinet member may decide to change the laws to suit his or her fancy.” [“NCLB Waivers and Junk Science in New York,” DianeRavitch.net, 8-31-12]

The bottom line is, waiver or no waiver, the high-stakes-testing culture of failure and blame being foisted upon our kids and our schools is a national travesty. In 2014 we are supposed to have 100% of our students proficient in reading and math. What we will actually have is 100% of our schools failing to make AYP. And under all these waiver systems, we will have even more of our poorest, African American, and Latino schools targeted for closure or handed over to private charter school operators. This is the state experimenting with our most struggling kids through school privatization, disrupting lives and communities. It’s insanity and it’s time to stop the madness.

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Help grow our grassroots movement for public education: join other volunteer parents, students, educators, and concerned community members by subscribing to Yinzercation. Enter your email address and hit the “Sign me up” button to get these pieces delivered directly to your inbox and encourage your networks to do the same. Really. Can you get five of your friends to subscribe? Working together we can win this fight for our schools.

The Elephant at the White House

So there we were at the White House. Forty “education leaders” from Pennsylvania invited to meet with President Obama’s senior policy advisors as well as top staff at the U.S. Department of Education (USDE). The room contained district superintendents, school board members, principals, college presidents, education professors, representatives from a host of education associations, a super-PAC school privatizer, educational consultants, and various non-profit directors. And one elephant.

This elephant in the room fittingly started as a Republican beast, but has gained so much traction with Democrats over the past decade that it could just as well have been a donkey lurking there in the corner. Whatever its animal form, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was casting a pretty big shadow and it was time to talk about the consequences of labeling our public schools as failures, high stakes testing, and the demonization of teachers.

And so during the first discussion session, I stood to address Roberto Rodriguez, the President’s senior policy advisor on education. I reminded him of what I had told him back in March, when I implored the White House to stop participating in the national narrative of failing public schools. (See “What I Told the White House.”) And then I gave him the view from the ground here in Pennsylvania where our grassroots movement has been fighting massive budget cuts, to let him know what it looks like when our country stops believing that public education is a public good. When it chooses to cut teachers, tutoring programs, nurses, special ed, school buses, music, art, foreign languages, and even Kindergarten.

NCLB has created a culture of punishment and fear, with student “achievement” measured by highly problematic standardized tests that don’t begin to assess real learning, and teachers evaluated on those test scores and little else. It has narrowed the focus in our schools to reading and math, jettisoned real education in favor of high stakes testing resulting in a plague of cheating scandals, and nurtured a system of “teaching to the test” on top of weeks of school time spent on test taking and nothing else. NCLB set a pie in the sky target of 100% proficiency for all U.S. students by 2014, and as that deadline has approached and the proficiency bar has moved ever higher, more schools have “failed” and more teachers have been blamed.

All this supposed failure and blaming has served as convenient cover to gut public education in states like Pennsylvania, where Governor Corbett and the Republican controlled legislature acted as fast as they could to slash $1 billion from public schools, install voucher-like tax credit programs, and privatize struggling districts, handing their schools over to corporations run by their largest campaign donors. But they had plenty of help from the other side of the aisle, because faced with the relentless media barrage of the failing-narrative, far too many people have lost confidence in public education as a pillar of our democracy.

And this has been happening all across the United States, with the backing of mountains of ultra-right superPAC money and ALEC-inspired legislation as well as major new foundation players including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Broad Foundation. This is truly a national battle, and we can’t win this fight isolated in our trenches. We need tone-changing leadership from the top.

My report from the grassroots met with a rousing round of applause from attendees and was followed by a series of equally urgent remarks. Larry Feinberg of the Keystone State Education Coalition warned that President Obama’s policies have looked nearly identical to Republicans on education (with the exception of vouchers, which he does not support) and that he may backfire at the polls with teachers and educators. Feinberg sits on the Haverford school board, a wealthy district near Philadelphia, and reminded the President’s staff that middle-class students in well-resourced schools actually score at the top on international tests. We are ignoring poverty while adding ever more testing, which will drastically expand yet again this year in his district and many others. Similarly, Susan Gobreski of Education Voters PA argued that we ought to have a new national narrative of equity, and that we have choices and need to help the public see that we can make different ones.

For their part, the White House advisors and senior USDE staff seemed to agree. Roberto Rodriguez emphasized that we “need more investment in public education, not less” with a focus on early childhood education, curriculum, wrap around programs, and parent engagement. He reported on the 300,000 teaching jobs lost in recent years, noting the economic implications for the U.S. and warned that sequestration – which will happen if congress does not head off looming mandatory budget cuts this fall – will mean billions of dollars cut to Title I, special ed, higher ed, and other student programs.

Massie Ritsch, Deputy Assistant Secretary at the USDE, talked about the fact that NCLB will be up for renewal next year, and that we here at the community level need to keep talking about “the lunacy that this law has allowed to perpetuate.” Yes, those were his actual words. Think about that. Of those Americans who say they are very familiar with NCLB, nearly half now say that the law has made things worse in this country (and only 28% say it’s better). (See “What the Polls Say.”) And here was the top brass at the USDE agreeing, calling the fallout from this federal law “lunacy.”

Deborah Delisle, USDE Assistant Secretary noted that 30 states have now applied for NCLB waivers to gain some flexibility in dealing with its ever more stringent requirements. However, Pennsylvania is not one of them. Many in the room expressed serious frustration with Governor Corbett’s apparent preference to have our schools labeled failures and refusal to seek relief through the waiver program. And it was readily apparent that the PA Department of Education declined to send anyone to this White House forum, which was hardly a meeting of Corbett’s political foes (after all, Students First PA was there: that’s the group that funnels superPAC millions to the campaigns of legislators who promise to deliver vouchers and give away public funds to private and religious schools through tax credit schemes.)

Delisle also commented on the polarizing effect that NCLB has had on our nation. It has created a climate in which those who embrace the corporate-marketplace-inspired reform mantra of choice, competition, and test-based accountability smear professional educators and public school advocates as “defenders of the status quo” who only care about union perks and not children. But this educational “reform” movement of the past decade has been a bit like the king’s new clothes. A wide swath of America has lined the parade route – Republican and Democrat alike – loudly cheering for the king’s beautiful new royal robes of privatization, but there’s nothing there covering his privates.

This “reform” movement is premised on a false idea that American schools have been in steady decline for the past forty years, which is not supported by the evidence. Despite ample data to the contrary, these reformers continue to insist that our students are falling further and further behind their international peers and promote the NCLB inspired narrative of failing public education. (For an excellent analysis of the data, see Diane Ravitch, The Death and Life of the Great American School System.) What’s more, they accuse those who point out the obvious – that privatization is not working, that charter schools and tax credits are draining our public coffers of desperately needed resources, that we have to address the astonishing high rate of child poverty – of being satisfied with the persistent racial achievement gap and using poverty as an excuse.

We are at a cross-roads with public education in our country. If we are going to get serious about making sure that every student has the opportunity to attend a great public school – “A school,” as Assistant Secretary Deborah Delisle said, “that every one of us would send our child to” – then we have to get serious about restoring this country’s belief in the public good of public education. It’s time to name the elephant in the room, have a serious conversation about overhauling NCLB, and make the choice to adequately and equitably fund our public schools.

Jessie Ramey of Yinzercation and Sherry Hazuda, President, Board of Directors of the Pittsburgh Public Schools, at the White House, 8-30-12

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White House policy advisors and USDE senior staff participants:

Kyle Lierman, White House Office of Public Engagement
Roberto Rodriguez, Special Assistant to the President for Education Policy
David Bergeron, Acting Assistant Secretary, USDE
Miriam Calderon, Senior Advisor, White House Domestic Policy Council
Lexi Barret, Senior Policy Advisor, White House Domestic Policy Council
Massie Ritsch, Deputy Assistant Secretary for External Affairs and Outreach, USDE
Deborah Delisle, Assistant Secretary, Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, USDE
Brenda Girton-Mitchell, Office of the Secretary, Director, Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, USDE
Brenda Dann-Messier, Assistant Secretary, Office of Vocational and Adult Education, USDE
Steven Hicks, Special Assistant for Early Learning, USDE
Betsy Shelton, Director of Public Engagement, USDE

What the Polls Say

Two polls out in the past week show some surprising findings for public education with important implications for our grassroots movement here in Pennsylvania.

First, Americans are now clearly saying that the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) act has made education worse, not better. [Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll, 8-20-12] Overall, 29% of those polled said that the decade old law signed by President Bush has negatively impacted our schools, compared to 16% who thought it has improved them. But among those surveyed who said they are “very familiar” with the law, 48% said NCLB has made things worse, versus only 28% who said education is better.

No Child Left Behind has arguably been a policy fiasco. It massively expanded the federal government’s role in setting local school policy and established a national narrative of “failing public schools.” By focusing narrowly on student achievement – measured only by highly problematic standardized test scores – the law has created a highly punitive system, devalued teachers and educational professionals, villainized teachers’ unions, introduced a lucrative private system of “educational consultants” and businesses, promoted corporate-style reform anathema to the public good, and undermined the public’s faith in their schools.

What’s really interesting is how similar the responses to this recent poll were across political and class lines, and between those with and without a current K-12 child in the household. The bulk of respondents in every demographic felt that NCLB had “not made much difference.” However, with only one exception, those who feel the law has damaged education outnumber – sometimes by as much as two to one – those who feel the law has improved things. That means that Republicans, Democrats, independents, and a large swath of folks across class lines agree on public education policy. Despite a massive effort by the extreme right to polarize the issue, Americans remain largely on the same page when it comes to their schools.

The one exception was among those earning less than $30,000 who split about evenly between those saying things are worse or better under NCLB. This group has the lowest proportion (21%) of people who feel the law has been a problem, and the largest proportion (22%) who feel it has helped. This finding has important class – and probably racial – significance and reminds us that, despite its obvious flaws, NCLB has focused national attention on the most struggling students who are often poor and minorities.

Because NCLB has set the national dialogue over much of public education policy for the past decade, it is encouraging that there is generally such widespread agreement as to its results. And even more encouraging that a great many agree that it is time to dismantle the NCLB boondoggle. In fact, “[t]he results from this survey are in line with a January Gallup poll, which found that Americans tended to favor either eliminating the law or keeping it with heavy revisions. Just 21 percent of those surveyed said the law should be kept in its original form.” [Huffington Post, 8-21-12]

The PDK/Gallup poll also revealed that 48% of those surveyed gave the local schools in their communities an A or B rating – the highest in twenty years. Yet when asked about the general state of American education, only 18% gave public schools the same high grades, while 30% gave them a D or F. Education historian Diane Ravitch calls this “the real accomplishment of corporate reformers” who have been driving “an unprecedented, well-funded campaign to demonize public schools and their teachers over at least the past two year, and by some reckoning, even longer.” [Diane Ravitch, 8-22-12]

For Americans exposed to that constant drumbeat of failing-public-schools, it’s remarkable that any still show support for public education. Yet when asked about the school their oldest child attends, over three quarters – 77% – of respondents gave their school an A or B (and only 6% gave it a D or F). Again, this is the highest rating in twenty years. Ravitch points out that this question “elicit[ed] the views of informed consumers, the people who refer to a real school, not the hypothetical school system that is lambasted every other day in the national press.” [See Diane Ravitch’s excellent full analysis of the poll.]

So when you ask parents about the real schools in their own communities where their actual children go, they are overwhelmingly positive. Similarly, 71% said they have trust and confidence in their teachers, regardless of the incessant bashing they are subjected to in the national media. And perhaps the biggest news for our movement: by far the largest problem facing our schools identified by survey respondents is lack of financial support. Overall 35% identified this option, and among those parents with children in public schools, 43% chose this as the number one problem in education, far outweighing other issues (such as discipline, etc.).

Given this last statistic, it should come as no surprise that another poll last week found Governor Corbett’s approval rating continues to sink. [Franklin & Marshall poll, 8-16-12] Forty-two percent of respondents were unhappy with the governor’s performance, up three points from the last poll in June, while less than a third rated him favorably, remaining steady at 32 percent. What’s more, when asked to rank the most important problems facing Pennsylvania today, people listed education at number three, right behind “unemployment” and “government or politicians,” and right before “the economy,” and “taxes.”

In its analysis of the poll, PoliticsPa concluded “negative feelings toward the government or conceived poor handling of education (particularly with continued ire over college tuition increases and slashed spending for public schools) are likely to account for Corbett’s poor polling.” [PoliticsPA 8-16-12] Indeed. This poll also demonstrates how much Pennsylvanians care about their public schools and just how effective our grassroots movement has been in keeping the spotlight on funding for public education.

We would not see education on the number three spot of Pennsylvania’s concerns if we had not raised our collective voices. And our grassroots movement dovetails others across the country, pushing back against the narrative of failing schools, and helping people to see that our number one concern really is adequate, equitable, and sustainable public funding for our public schools. Our part in this local and national conversation is working, and we must keep it up!

Define Failing

It’s politically hot right now to talk about “failing” schools. To hear many legislators and school “reformers” tell the story, public education in the U.S. is circling the drain. Did you see Michelle Rhee’s obnoxious Olympic spoof ad? Remember the nasty radio campaign back in June, funded by the ultra-conservative and mega-rich Koch brothers, pushing the narrative of “students trapped in failing schools”? [See “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.”] But the rhetoric of failure is not only misleading (and sometimes flat out wrong), it is having disastrous consequences on our schools.

The latest example of this comes courtesy of Pennsylvania’s recently expanded EITC corporate tax giveaway. The misnamed Educational Improvement Tax Credit program now has a companion called the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit program, which is premised on the notion that our public schools are failures and that students must be rescued from them. To do this, the program borrows from the federal government’s No Child Left Behind, which has been labeling schools as failures for the past decade under one of the nation’s largest policy fiascoes. Under the new EITC program, Pennsylvania has developed a list of 415 “failing schools” and created a voucher-like system allowing students living near them to take public tax-payer money to go to private schools. (Students can also go to another public school in a different district, if they will accept them – more on that later).

But the whole system rests on faulty logic. First, the list of supposedly “low achieving” schools is deeply flawed. Published at the end of July by the Pennsylvania Department of Education, the list uses results from the 2010-2011 PSSAs (standardized state tests given to all public school students in grades 3 – 8 and 11) to identify the bottom 15% of schools based on reading and math scores. [PDE list of “failing” schools.] However, a full third of the schools on that list actually reached their student achievement targets set by the state and federal government.

Yes, that’s right, a third of the schools on the state’s list made AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress) or were “making progress” under the definition of No Child Left Behind. [See our annotated chart below from the Pennsylvania School Board Association’s analysis.] Those numbers hold true here in Yinzer Nation: in the ten counties of Southwest PA, 22 out of the 73 schools listed – 30% – made AYP or were showing progress. That includes both the schools identified as “failing” in Green and Butler counties, one of the two schools in Beaver county, and six of the sixteen in Fayette county. (There was one school on the list from Washington county, and no schools identified in Armstrong, Indiana, Lawrence or Westmoreland counties.)

What’s more, of the 13 supposedly “failing” schools in Allegheny county, seven of them have already closed. (Noted red on the above chart; see PPS 2012-2013 realignment plan.) Those seven schools accounted for over a quarter of the list (7/27) of Pittsburgh Public Schools. And eight of the 27 PPS schools also made AYP or were “making progress.” Again, that’s 30% of the list in the city of Pittsburgh. As the Pennsylvania School Board Association points out, “Labeling these schools as low-achieving when they have met the student achievement standards set by the state and federal government functions to create two separate and conflicting measurements for student achievement.” [PSBA 7-27-12]

If the state is really interested in rescuing students from failing schools, why didn’t it include charter schools on that list? Only two of Pennsylvania’s 12 cyber charter schools achieved Adequate Yearly Progress status last year, and seven have never made AYP at all. (For details on charter school performance, see “Dueling Rallies.”) The Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University found that students in every single Pennsylvania cyber charter school performed “significantly worse” in reading and math than their peers in conventional public schools. [Stanford/CREDO report summary, 2011] Shouldn’t the state be rescuing students from these low-achieving charter schools?

The fact that the state just approved four new cyber charters suggests that this isn’t really about saving students from failing schools at all. Indeed, under the new EITC scholarship program, students need never have actually attended a failing school in order to take public money to a private institution. The law is written so that students only have to live in the attendance area for a school on the low-achieving list – they may never have even set foot in the building!

And Governor Corbett and his allies in the legislature have made sure that no one can look too closely at the results of the new EITC program. The scholarship organizations have no auditing requirements and almost no reporting requirements (despite the fact that they can take 20% of donations for their own administration), and there is no way for the public to learn if the scholarships actually help students in any way. “In fact,” the Pennsylvania School Board Association explains, “the EITC law prohibits state administrators from requesting any information related to academic achievement, making it impossible to measure the effectiveness of the program.” [PSBA 7-27-12] So students could be attending failing private schools with these scholarships – but since private schools do not have to administer the PSSAs, we would never know.

And then there’s the pesky problem that EITC diverts our public funds meant for public education – where those resources could actually address student achievement issues. But with draconian state budget cuts, school districts have been forced to cut even basic tutoring programs while continuing to be on the hook for students who leave. For example, there is no limit to how far away an EITC student can go with their publicly-subsidized “scholarship,” and the student’s home school district is legally obligated to provide transportation for up to ten miles. It’s no wonder local school districts are not buying into this program. Even those that did not appear on the state’s list – and could volunteer to receive students from “low achieving” schools – have shown little interest (only two have signed up in the whole state so far, and none in Southwest PA).

Interviewed by the Tribune-Review, Wilkinsburg School District Superintendent Archie Perrin “said the tax credit program is yet another means of siphoning needed resources from districts — particularly those with high percentages of students from low-income households — which already contend with declining state revenue.” [Tribune-Review, 7-27-12] And West Mifflin Area Superintendent Daniel Castagna explained that his district would not participate in EITC because “it’s a blatant attempt to privatize public education.” He and 23 other Allegheny County school superintendents had a conference call last week, and the majority concluded “that the opportunity scholarships would not help public school districts.” [Post-Gazette, 8-18-12]

The EITC program is clearly not about what is best for students. It is about giving corporations huge tax breaks while sending public dollars to private and religious schools, doing an end-run around our own state constitution and draining our public schools of desperately needed resources. It’s about labeling schools as failing and then using the rhetoric of failure to legitimatize the privatization of public education. Now that’s an epic failure.